Bright Lights Film Journal

Bright Sights: Recent DVDs: Berlin Alexanderplatz, Harry Langdon, Early Kurosawa, I Am Cuba, The Dragon Painter, Wrath of the Gods, Méliès

Berlin Alexanderplatz  (Phil Jutzi, 1931)

Franz Biberkopf must be one of the most porous characters in all literature. In Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel, Berlin Alexanderplatz, a modernist torrent — dialogue, thoughts, feelings, newspaper ads, divergent streams of anecdote and random scientific facts, census quotes, stockyard statistics — mingles and fuses with the very atoms of Franz’s ego. Flattened and rolled into the tawdry bathos of all that surrounds him, Biberkopf is an unsettling, cubist-like characterization carried along by a marginal storyline that spits and coughs. Language is Döblin’s thing, hammered into a rigorous formalism that will alienate any reader seeking a bedside tale. It’s a famously tough read.

Yet, two years after publication in 1931, Franz Biberkopf found himself in a movie directed by Phil Jutzi. Included by Criterion in their seven-disc set devoted to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s definitive treatment, Jutzi’s film — if you’d neither read the book nor seen Fassbinder’s adaptation — would appear a very odd duck, a quirky little proto-noir with an upbeat depression-era message at its end.

Jutzi trumps Fassbinder only once. When a jittery Franz (Heinrich George) leaves Tegel prison after his four-year stint for manslaughter, he climbs onto a streetcar that clangs its way through the real Berlin of ’31. Mirroring Biberkopf’s anxious state, Jutzi get quite a montage going, with many glimpses of streets being ripped up while Franz stares uncomprehendingly. It’s a neat visual metaphor — one that film can possibly do even better than Döblin’s collage effects: Franz is in a state of deconstruction, too.

From there on, though, the film retains little of the sense of purpose of the novel. On its packaging Criterion implies that Döblin wrote the screenplay on his own, but in a fact-filled interview included in the set, author Peter Jelavich reveals that Döblin co-wrote it with a studio hack, Hans Wilhelm, who was known as a confectioner of light comedy. Jelavich puts this fact in context with the aborting of an earlier (1930) radio play of Alexanderplatz; the station’s managers had been scared of a reaction from the National Socialists to Döblin’s provocative content.

With the studio worried either about the Nazis or of producing a downer in the midst of a depression — or, maybe both — why did they make this movie? Playing it safe in its 90-minute timeframe, Jutzi extracts a slender melodrama that stands on rickety legs. After a display of bad nerves on the streetcar, George’s Biberkopf settles like Jell-O into a one-note performance as a jolly ex-con with the face of a burgomaster. Franz’s parade of girlfriends dwindles to two ill-defined characters, with Cilly (Maria Bard) doubling as Eva in her scenes with a blank-faced Mieze (Margarete Schlegel).

Curiously, as played by Bernhard Minetti, Reinhold is grimly effective here, especially in a scene where Biberkopf bubbles good cheer in a nightclub surrounded by champagne bottles and flappers. Looking like Vladimir Putin facing down Mike Wallace, Minetti exudes tightly controlled resentment and anger over Biberkopf’s one-upmanship, and the girls appraise Reinhold a cold fish, meaning, perhaps, a homosexual? The climactic murder of Franz’s beloved Mieze thereby obtains a smoldering, psychologically charged motivation, one of the few things this adaptation gets right. Maybe Döblin had control over these scenes.

But then, in no time at all, we have Franz back on the streets of Berlin hawking a new product, a little metal toy man whose upper body bobs on a spring. Elated as a survivor, the one-armed Biberkopf explains that you just have to find “the metal” in yourself, and life begins anew. The film leaves Döblin’s brave experiment a muddled, “pick-yourself-up” public service announcement.

Criterion presents Jutzi’s film in a raw, unrestored state that’s just watchable enough, but it’s a valuable artifact of its time with which to contrast Fassbinder’s uniquely personal adaptation.

Germany/1931/B&W/90 minutes/In German with English subtitles. Released in 2007 as part of Criterion’s seven-disc set featuring Fassbinder’s 1980 TV version.

Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, 1980)

Nearly 30 years after Jutzi’s adaptation of Alexanderplatz, Fassbinder’s 14-part film premiered on German television, and viewers saw a wholly different reimagining of Döblin’s novel, where Franz Biberkopf actually doesn’t survive his Job-like afflictions, but dies and is reborn in the same “human skin” but stripped of joy and trust.

In the collected Lectures on Literature, Vladimir Nabokov declares that the fictions of great literature are not places in which readers might “find themselves” but freshly encountered vistas peopled with personae to be discovered, not merely recognized.1  The young Fassbinder, however, was no Nabokovian reader — he ate Berlin Alexanderplatz whole, internalized Biberkopf’s struggle as his own, and declared years later, as he filmed his magnum opus, that he was Franz Biberkopf.

Fassbinder dares to extract a sturdily functioning soap opera out of Döblin’s sketchy narrative, coloring it a strong tint of amber-colored weltschmerz2  that collides uncomfortably with violence and the depiction of debased human existence. For Fassbinder, this is not just a sympathetic depiction of such an existence but a one-on-one identification.

Part 4 of the mini-series brings us to Biberkopf’s breakdown after experiencing the first of several betrayals by male friends. In his equivalent chapter, Döblin sketches a Biberkopf boozing and vomiting in a rooming house but abandons his character to insert a long sequence featuring Job lying in a cabbage patch arguing with Satan, or God. Quite possibly, it’s just one section of Franz’s stewed brain in dialogue with another.

Fassbinder’s rethinking of Döblin’s collage sequence is a brilliant example of master screenwriting. The writer/director was able, simultaneously, to open-up and extend Döblin’s minimal narrative and retain the divergent Job dialogues. As Franz crawls through piles of empty beer bottles and dried vomit, the director puts us right into the armpit of a decomposing human being. Then, with sleight-of-hand inspiration, Fassbinder conjures an eccentric neighboring tenant, Baumann, who casually becomes Biberkopf’s caregiver and gin rummy partner. As they play cards, Baumann — a sort of self-made philosopher/scholar — takes up Döblin’s Job/Satan/God dialog, with Franz answering Baumann (Satan/God) cagily as Job.

The pace toward the final catastrophe is a murderously slow squeeze that is distinctly unpleasant and lacking in conventional melodramatic closures. Then, like a bad acid trip, the two-hour epilogue offers us Franz’s bughouse journey through the mirror, staring down death and his own culpability in the murder of Mieze. Tellingly, the orchestral Peer Raben score drops out, replaced by a selection of ’60s and ’70s pop songs (by Leonard Cohen, The Velvet Underground, and, most especially, Kris Kristofferson: “Me and Bobby McGee” as sung by Janis Joplin).3  Upon recovery, plopped back down in 1928 Berlin, the newly hatched Franz is sober and fragile but determined to never be deceived by anyone again, to, in Döblin’s words, “not join the parade any more . . . the world is not made of sugar.”

Fassbinder’s adaptation is possibly unique in that it remains faithful to its source while altering it in the most personal way possible. Döblin’s sardonic tone may be gone and his modernist collage replaced by edgy yet mostly linearly constructed filmmaking,4  but Biberkopf’s nose hairs might as well be Fassbinder’s — his entire film becomes a golem that sweats, screams, gets bored, and feels sorry for itself. The end effect, when the director roughhouses his creature to a final “illumination” in the epilogue, matches — by actually altering the form and tone of the film — the emergence of the new Biberkopf in the novel.

Deep within his own battered heart, Fassbinder had found a remarkable equivalence to Döblin’s Song of Death and Biberkopf’s final, belated hearing of it.

Germany/1980/Color/940 minutes/Monaural/In German with English subtitles. Released on DVD by Criterion in 2007.

Lost and Found: The Harry Langdon Collection (1924-1935)

On disc four of their recent and wonderful Harry Langdon collection, All Day Entertainment includes three of the many talkies Langdon made before he died in 1945. After three discs of blissful silent film entertainment, the ill-conceived sound films are tough to watch, but they’re a powerful instruction on how Langdon tumbled from comic deity to excruciatingly unfunny comic workhorse.

In 1924, when Langdon made his first film with Mack Sennett, he was not only a seasoned vaudeville performer but had already made six films. Sennett may have consistently underpaid his stars — like Chaplin and Arbuckle who deserted him — but he recognized Harry’s unique gifts and found writers, directors, and co-stars to nourish and fulfill Langdon’s potential.

In the excellent, 72-minute documentary that concludes this collection, an array of film historians throw light on Langdon’s time with Sennett, but the set’s progression of 18 films from ’24 to ’27 tell the story even better. Several of Langdon’s earliest films, like Smile Please and The Hansom Cabman (both 1924), feature Sennett’s trademark brand of frenetic, hurly-burly slapstick, but in the middle of it there’s a strange little guy who demands his own space and his own sweet time. Soon enough, he would get both.

After the collection’s first few films, the pace becomes almost leisurely, and Langdon’s delicate persona blossoms like a well-tended hothouse flower. It was collusion of sympathetic talent: director Harry Edwards, writer/director Frank Capra, and superb support from blustery straight man Vernon Dent, another sadly forgotten performer. And there was Sennett himself, who gave his star room and, apparently, plenty of time to hone his exquisitely nuanced routines even as a film was being shot.

On the wrong side of 40 when he worked for Sennett, Harry was also a late-comer to the era of silent film, which afforded him a scant four years to display his gifts before its demise. And Langdon, who’d wandered into the movies from a vaudevillian, greasepainted, pantomimed universe, needed the abstraction of silent film. Encased in makeup, his face as white as any Pierrot mime, Harry was a childlike creature of indeterminate age with a puckish grin that included a vast range of reaction and feeling, from “don’t hit me” to “please love me.” Thrown into a loose contrivance of haphazard events by his writer and director — his expressive eyes suggesting remarkably complex thought processes — the comedian would draw inward to consider his options in the face of peril, which are often the devious blandishments of a pretty starlet like saucer-eyed Natalie Kingston (above).

In the midst of conflict, Langdon’s character can also retreat suddenly into placid states of bemused distraction. In 1926’s Soldier Man, Harry, a stranded World War I grunt unaware of the armistice, gets into an imaginary firefight with a farmer, and at one point uses a cow as cover. Taking position underneath the cow, Langdon notices its udder and, like a ten-year-old, lackadaisically begins playing with it. Escaping from menace in The Sea Squawk (1925), Harry crashes into a shipboard costume party, hurriedly dons a southern belle’s outfit, and joins the dancing, transformed spectacularly into a dimpled coquette. Langdon in drag is polymorphous perverse like nothing I’ve ever seen.

For someone like me, unfamiliar with Langdon’s work, All Day’s collection is a rapturous discovery. The inclusion of the late sound films, which are truly awful, is not wasted space. Watch them once, then go immediately back to one of the sublime silents with the acquired knowledge that the profound comic art found within them is fragile, easily lost, but fortunately still with us.

Special mention must be made of the newly created musical accompaniment for the silent features. Composed and performed by The Snark Ensemble, which also takes on several guest soloists for these gigs, the scores are varied, always appropriate, and extremely well played and recorded.

USA/1924-1935/B&W/624 minutes/Silent with musical accompaniment. Released on DVD in 2007 by All Day Entertainment and distributed by Facets.

Postwar Kurosawa: No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), One Wonderful Sunday (1947), Scandal (1950), The Idiot (1951), I Live in Fear (1955)

Criterion’s seventh installment of their Eclipse series finds Akira Kurosawa striding towards maturity. All five films wrestle with the troubled state in which Japan found itself in the wake of World War II, yet the years encompassed here would also yield his first films set in medieval Japan, Rashomon (1950) and The Seven Samurai (1954), and it’s these that would give him fame in the West.

It’s fascinating to watch the filmmaker try on different hats. 1950’s Scandal (above) begins with a breezy Billy Wilder set-up in which two strangers, a famous singer (Yoshiko Yamaguchi) and a renowned painter (Toshiro Mifune), are photographed and published by a celebrity tabloid in a compromising pose that suggests a secret affair. None exists, of course, and the principled painter, deciding to sue, hires a drunken, bumbling lawyer exceedingly well played by Kurosawa stalwart Takashi Shimura, who leads the comedy into a distinctly non-romantic, un-Wilder-like pathos. One Wonderful Sunday (1947), featuring two decent young people waylaid by postwar poverty, appears to take after Frank Capra’s socially conscious romantic comedies until it swerves midway into a bleak episode of sexual despair before returning to some rather uncomfortable Capra-esque whimsy.

No such confusion of tone inhabits I Live in Fear (1955, below), a masterwork that deserves to be better known. In spite of its following the arthouse hit Seven Samurai, it’s clear why this film has not been much seen outside of Japan, especially in the U.S. In a surprising turn, the young Toshiro Mifune plays a seventyish patriarch who, terrified of the possibility of a nuclear war, wants to move his large family, which also consists of two mistresses and their children, to the perceived safety of Brazil. No one wants to go, and, to insure their eventual inherited assets won’t be squandered by the old man’s paranoiac flight from Japan, they seek to have him declared incompetent. Legalities bring them to Family Court, whose panel includes a dentist, Dr. Harada, played by Takashi Shimura.

Harada is the film’s moral voice. Agonized by the decision the Court must make, he realizes that Nakajima (Mifune) is not crazy at all — he simply can’t wall out the fear of a very real postwar threat. I wondered for a time why Kurosawa chose Mifune to play the old man — why not cast the older Shimura? — but as the final tragedy unfolded, the choice made sense. Referencing King Lear, Kurosawa wants his aging character a powerful, still physically vital man brought to his knees not just by fear but also by the greedy machinations of his family, who deny him compassion in his darker hours. The virile, 35-year-old Mifune, stooped but broad-shouldered, is remarkably convincing as the old profligate: his anger, terror (he ducks for cover in lightning storms), and bristling concern for his self-involved family are outsized expressions that loom over the film’s topical concerns. Yet it’s the precision of that topical theme — Japan’s pervasive, loathsome fear of nuclear attack in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — that would’ve left a bad taste in the mouth in 1955’s America, whose atomic hammer blows had wiped out hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens just ten years previous.

Mifune is perhaps less convincing as the rough trade Denkichi Akama in The Idiot (1951), which tanked precipitously in both Japan and the States upon its premiere. Since then, in a spectacular 50-year rush to judgment, the film has been almost universally reviled in critical circles. Kurosawa’s treatment follows the novel dotingly, but I can’t see this as a drawback, especially as it’s paired with the director’s creative postwar re-imaginings in the distinctly non-picturesque, snowbound city of Hokkaido, which offers melancholic blizzards at the snap of a finger.

The film’s Myshkin, Kinji Kameda (Masayuki Mori), acquires his “love for everyone” — and his epileptic dementia — by facing near death as a prisoner falsely accused of war crimes. Neither the beautiful, ill-reputed Taeko (Setsuko Hara) nor the proud and mercurial Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga) can lay claim to Kameda’s beatific compassion for long, and when the two hungry gals place an ultimatum on the unfortunate Christ figure, desperate consequences follow. Kuga is especially affecting, but Hara, so exquisite in Ozu’s Late Spring and well cast in this set’s No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), evokes Joan Crawford’s terrifying eyeballs and eyebrows in some of her overplaying here.

But in the end there’s much to be moved by in The Idiot, which in its many psychically charged nooks and crannies hints at a larger grandeur not quite achieved, probably not even in the original four-and-a-half-hour cut slashed by the studio to the extant 166 minutes transferred by Criterion. The source print is the worst in the set, yet its lack of a good range of values supports the aura of dingy winter light that settles heavily on the uneasy souls of Kurosawa’s cast.

The rest of the transfers fare much better, with Scandal and I Live In Fear looking very good indeed. Here’s another richly rewarding Eclipse set from Criterion that, probing deep into a filmmaker’s beginnings, yields gold.

Japan/B&W. No Regrets for Our Youth, 1946/110 minutes. One Wonderful Sunday, 1947/109 minutes. Scandal, 1950/105 minutes. The Idiot, 1951//166 minutes. I Live in Fear, 1955/103 minutes. All in Japanese with optional English subtitles; all 1:33.1. Released on DVD by Criterion in 2008.

I Am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)

With Fidel Castro handing over the reins just this month — March 2008 — it’s a serendipitous time to consider Milestone’s recent release of I Am Cuba. Essentially a lost film until the ’90s, I Am Cuba had meant to follow in the footsteps of Battleship Potemkin (1925), not in its style but in its propagandist mission, the celebration of a recent revolution. Yet, upon its Cuban premiere, both the Cuban people and many of the film’s participants simply didn’t like it.

Interviewed in The Siberian Mammoth, the 2005 documentary on the making of the film, Cuban members of the film crew and even the co-screenwriter, poet Enrique Pineda Barnet, felt that the Russian filmmakers misunderstood and romanticized the Cuban culture and its revolution, or had allowed image to overwhelm content. On its end, the Soviet bureaucracy, holding the film’s fate in its hands, promptly shelved it, and, in retrospect, it’s easy to see why. Nearly 50 years after the Bolshevik revolution, the repressive Soviet machine was as far from frothy Marxist idealism as was the regime of Nicholas II.

But Castro’s ’59 victory over the U.S.-backed Batista regime excited any number of Russian intellectuals and artists, who saw in it a successful application of the revolutionary ideas and aims that their country had long abandoned. Never mind that, by 1962, the revolution’s afterlife and Fidel’s symbiotic relationship with Khrushchev’s Soviet Union made the reality a cloudier, less ebullient one. Director Mikhail Kalatozov, cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky, and poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko blew into Cuba creatively juiced up. With a remarkable combination of artistic naïveté and technical sophistication, they went to film an epic visual poem whose hero would be not Fidel but the Cuban people themselves.

Fourteen months of shooting yielded an astonishing, image-crazed film. Small, hand-held cameras, carrying five minutes of film, were fitted with extreme 9.8mm wide-angle lenses that produce near fisheye distortions of perspectives and verticals. More often than not, the film being shot was infrared, which turns green jungles white and blue skies black.

Such an emphasis on unorthodox technique and material might prove gimmicky or sensationalist, but in these hands the results are lyrical, exhilarating, liberating — even cleansing — just like a revolution is supposed to be. There are rapid pans into human faces and bodies or vertiginous craning shots swinging up backwards from a close-up, until the subject of that close-up becomes a tiny figure alone against a darkening Havana cityscape. There’s the famous tracking shot that begins in close-step with a funeral procession, glides smoothly up buildings into a cigar factory, floats like a ghost above the workers, and then swings free out a window into the air above that same procession. It’s a dolorous moment in the film, but, in the bright Cuban sunlight, it’s also an intoxicating one, feeling like one of those recurring dreams in which you can so easily (and somehow naturally) jump free of the bounds of earth.

The narrative, episodic and nearly wordless, features a series of Batista-era outrages enacted on a young woman, a sugarcane farmer, a university student, and an isolated peasant living in the hills. Each segment is a rush of standout, nearly numinous images, flowering right behind your eyeballs, that resonate and rebound with those in other parts of the film. When the farmer sets fire to his hut, the flames, aided by the infrared film, burn unnaturally white against the blue/black sky as the camera drifts upward; in the next scene, agitating university students set fire to a drive-in movie screen showing newsreels of Batista. As the flames envelop the screen, the newsreel keeps playing and the dictator keeps gesturing, yielding an image of ferocious surrealism that still maintains its focused intent.

Milestone, which has held the rights to the film since its rediscovery by Scorsese and Coppola in the ’90s, give an unusually luxurious DVD presentation of I Am Cuba on three discs held in a faux cigar box. Disc one is the feature, exquisitely transferred from the camera negative. Discs two and three hold documentaries on the film and its director respectively, with the aforementioned Siberian Mammoth itself an important and provocative film.

Soviet Union and Cuba/1964/B&W/140 minutes/Spanish & Russian with English subtitles. Released on DVD in 2007 by Milestone Film & Video and distributed by New Yorker Video.

The Dragon Painter (William Worthington, 1919) and The Wrath of the Gods (Reginald Barker, 1914)

In The Dragon Painter, 30-year-old Sessue Hayakawa (right) stars as Tatsu, an outcast, wild-man artist living in the remote mountains of Japan. Rejecting all society and conventional behavior, Tatsu appears the perfect Byronic hero in his ragged tunic, leaping from crag to crag in a picturesque oriental landscape instantly recognizable as Yosemite Park. Occasionally, he settles down long enough to knock off several paintings, but few of them survive his own critical standards, and that’s okay. For him, all of nature lies enraptured with the hidden presence of his fabled lover, a princess changed into a dragon 1,000 years ago, and his art is merely how he conducts his unending search for her.

Adapted from a 1906 novel by Mary McNeil Fenollosa and made by the actor’s own production company, The Dragon Painter opens with the intriguing suggestion that fundamental creativity resides in the yearning for the unattainable. But the film’s story can’t really develop the idea — Tatsu must find his princess. Until then, Hayakawa, as the crazy naïf outsider with spiked hair, is fascinating to watch. At one juncture, Tatsu produces a swell little painting of rocky precipices enclosing a lake, and when asked “Well, where’s the dragon?”, he testily replies, testily: “It’s there, under the lake,” and who’s to argue?

Soon enough, though, the wild man is tamed when he’s tricked into becoming an apprentice to an aging master of a soon-to-vanish tradition of painting. The old painter, Kano Indara, recognizing Tatsu as gifted enough to continue his family’s artistic dynasty, slyly informs Tatsu that his daughter, Ume-Ko, is his mythic princess and — boom — Tatsu falls to his knees, enchanted at the sight of her.

Never mind that Ume-Ko, as portrayed by Tsuru Aoki (Hayakawa’s wife), is less than enchanting — or that Indara, who seems a little self-involved, is pimping his daughter out to a rumored nut case. A marriage ensues, and the painter becomes creatively impotent. For Tatsu to regain his powers, he must learn the transience of life and love — and thereby its preciousness. It’s an unusual moral to encounter in an early American melodrama, and you have to imagine it has something to do with Hayakawa’s sensibilities. Look at the depths of existential anguish the actor so powerfully underplays nearly 40 years later as Colonel Saito in Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Sourced from a print at the George Eastman House, Milestone offers a lovely, detailed transfer of The Dragon Painter with a good synthesized score by Mark Izu that unfortunately feels compelled to mickey-mouse the few comic moments in the film.

The print available for The Wrath of the Gods, generously included here as an extra, is in far worse shape, with lots of visible damage, but it’s a lively, worthwhile film, notable more for a young Frank Borzage playing a curly-headed shipwrecked sailor than for Hayakawa. Buried under a ton of makeup, Hayakawa stands in as the aged father of Borzage’s love interest, a young Tsuru Aoki. To find happiness, the mixed-race couple must first negotiate the superstitions of an intolerant band of villagers, a dose of mob violence, and hot, spewing ash from an erupting volcano nudged into action by an angry Buddha who wants a facedown with Christianity. (Jesus wins.)

Milestone further stuffs their bursting one-disc package with several DVD-ROM features, such as McNeil’s complete novel and the script for Wrath of the Gods. In addition there is a five-minute comedy short, Screen Snapshots (1921), in which Hayakawa, Fatty Arbuckle, and Charles Murray improvise some shtick.

USA. The Dragon Painter 1919/53 minutes/B&W tinted/Silent with musical accompaniment. The Wrath of the Gods 1914/60 minutes/B&W/Silent with musical accompaniment. Released by Milestone Film & Video and distributed by New Yorker Video in 2008.

Georges Méliès: First Wizard of Cinema (1896-1913)

Today Georges Méliès is treated as a pioneer of cinema, and so he was. But does the mantle need qualifying? After witnessing an exhibition of films by August Lumière in 1896, Méliès, a popular theater illusionist, saw film initially as a way to make his magic tricks more mystifying than ever. Almost immediately, having constructed his own movie camera (Lumière wouldn’t sell him one), he invented the technique of stop-action substitution, which allowed for all sorts of magic tricks of unheralded complexity, including Georges’ apparent favorite: the disembodied head. With a wave of his hand, Méliès would briefly decapitate himself and disperse a dozen copies of his own head — still talking, smiling, frowning — all over the stage. At the premiere, the applause may have lasted longer than the film itself.

In spite of Edison and Lumière, Méliès’ films are so vivid and imaginative that you want to say movies began with him in 1896. After all, Orson Welles had a magic act, too; but Georges was one of those innovators who looked backward as much as forward. Constructing a permanent studio in 1896-97, he refined his methods and techniques over the next 16 years, but the mechanics of his productions never strayed from the basics of 19th-century stagecraft nor the confines of the proscenium.

Painted drops and flats or the flimsiest constructs would stand in for a landscape, a submarine, a chair, or a comet. A military parade would consist of the same dozen extras marching in a circle around the scenery. In The Impossible Voyage (1904) a tiny cutout train — made of wood? cardboard? — soars free of the earth and heads straight for a drowsy sun, played by the fleshy head of a middle-aged man who yawns and swallows the train whole. No one since Méliès has pushed fantastical buffoonery to such euphoric heights, and, pioneering or not, this is because of the filmmaker’s unique outré sensibility. The flamboyance of the fakery, the art in his artifice — that’s why we love him.

Over the course of the 173 films included in Flicker Alley’s monumental new five-disc set, Méliès populates his mythology with the figures of Satan, fairy princesses, violent clowns, suns and moons mugging wildly, women as celestial bodies, and a multitude of ballet dancers, all of whom parade, dance, swim, and disappear in films that range in length from under a minute to half an hour. Many films are in delicate, hand-tinted color. There are a plethora of magic tricks, some historical re-enactments, fairy tales, and one film called After the Ball (1897) that features Méliès’ future wife, Jehanne D’Alcy, stripping down to a state of implied nudity. The body stocking is purposefully obvious, but could this be the first commercial blue movie?

A personal favorite is 1903’s The Infernal Cakewalk, an extended production number that, except for the special effects, could have been pulled directly from a Parisian music hall stage. Set in the caverns of hell, the film features Satan directing a goodly number of chorines who prance and strut about until a black-faced couple enters to demonstrate with exquisite aplomb the then recent dance craze, the cakewalk.5  Pianist Donald Sosin shares the honors here; he’s flawlessly and joyously in time with the eccentric choreography until it literally explodes in a ball of flame.

Flicker Alley has gathered an amazingly varied roster of musicians to score all the films, including the estimable Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, who take on the 30-minute Conquest of the Pole (1912). The box contains an informative 35-page booklet, which also indexes the films. The first disc is fronted by a half-hour film, Le Grand Méliès (Georges Franju, 1953) that lovingly recreates, with Méliès’ son playing his father, the filmmaker’s methods and accomplishments.

Flicker Alley’s release is a rare, unexpected pleasure, like getting a magical Christmas present from an uncle you never knew you had.

France/1896-1913/782 minutes/B&W and tinted/Silent with musical and spoken accompaniment. Released on DVD by Flicker Alley in 2008.

  1. Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 1-6. []
  2. The sentimentality inherent in much of Peer Raben’s score reinforces a tone of wistful despair throughout. []
  3. The songs’ lyrics slyly underscore elements of Franz’s catharsis: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ else to lose,” and, “Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body and all that it requires.” []
  4. Remarkably, Fassbinder’s screenplay manages to insert much of Döblin’s collage effects through voice-overs and intertitles. Sometimes Franz will casually read ads from the newspaper out loud to amuse himself. []
  5. An Edison film (also 1903) features two cakewalking couples and a leader, but only for a few seconds. In Méliès’ film, the elaboration on the dance’s basic strut becomes so intense it approaches hip-hop. []